Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who've been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
First off, let's address the odd name of this Chicago sound-art trio. I was wondering what language "Liof Munimula" might be when the group's cofounder, percussionist extraordinaire Michael Zerang, gave me a little nudge: "Read it backward." (Please picture me smacking myself in the forehead here.) As small a gesture as it seems, that choice of name typifies Liof Munimula's eccentricity, humor, and subversive absurdity—their devotion to the exploration of electroacoustic sound always came first, and they barely considered whether it might make sense to anyone else or where they might fit in. I spoke to Zerang to get the group's story, which also offers a small cross section of the 1980s Chicago experimental scene.
The tale begins in 1976, when Zerang (born in Chicago on November 16, 1958) and Daniel Scanlan (born in Chicago on November 21, 1956) met at Wright College. They lived around the corner from each other in Edgewater, and they started jamming—the first time Zerang had made music with anyone outside his Assyrian family. At first he played hand drums, and Scanlan was learning violin, electric guitar, and cornet. After forming the Neutrino Orchestra with bassist Kent Kessler and joining the Musica Menta collective, in 1981 the two of them decided they wanted to start their own group dedicated to free improvisation and spontaneous composition.
They found their third member when Zerang saw dancers Kaja Overstreet and Jean Parisi at Links Hall, with sound artist and instrument inventor Don Meckley providing accompaniment. Zerang and Scanlan arranged to play with Meckley, and he impressed them with his creative contraptions—he relied heavily on shortwave radios, and one of his homemade instruments, the radiotar, allowed him to manipulate a shortwave by pivoting a hinged guitar neck attached to its tuning mechanism.
"Don would usually have his inventions, like the hydro-kalimba, set up as sound installations in galleries, et cetera," says Zerang. "He would also provide live sound for some performance artists, usually based on his work with the shortwave radio. I believe Liof Munimula was the first 'band' he played in."
Meckley was born in Boulder, Colorado, on May 4, 1951, and moved to Chicago in 1974 to attend the School of the Art Institute as a graduate student in painting. He became a graduate assistant to music history professor Bob Snyder when Snyder was launching the school's sound department. Under Snyder's influence, Meckley began working with contact microphones, tape recorders, and a new E-mu analog synthesizer. Influenced by musique concrète, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, AMM, and Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he learned about the history of instrument making, the structure and perception of sound, and new approaches to composition and ensemble playing.
Throughout the 80s, Liof Munimula performed mostly in Chicago venues (they had a tight relationship with Links Hall and Club Lower Links, where Zerang began booking in 1985), and they played with the likes of sui generis noise artist Dan Burke (aka Illusion of Safety), playful experimental trio Math, and avant-garde improvising duo Davey Williams & LaDonna Smith. They also toured the midwest and east coast, including a 1986 gig at New York club Roulette that's preserved on the venue's website.
In 1988 the band put out their only proper LP, The Jonah Syndrome, via their own Garlic Records label, producing it themselves and using cover art by cartoonist P.S. Mueller (a longtime fixture in the pages of the Reader). This dizzying document swerves on a dime from something like free jazz to minimal landscapes of found sound. Liof Munimula also released a tiny edition of a four-cassette box set called Too Fried to Wing It, which documented their 1986 tour of the southwest U.S.
The band continued to perform throughout the 90s, including a five-night run in 1994 called "Another Jolly Abyss." Zerang explains the residency: "It was an epic performance thing we did at the Blue Rider Theater in Pilsen. It was supposed to be released as a five-CD box set by Eighth Day Music, and was all set to go—mixed, mastered, cover art, et cetera . . . but then the label guys disappeared."
The word "epic" could describe a lot about Liof Munimula. Zerang estimates that his percussion rig consisted of 42 different pieces, and Meckley's setup was complicated to the point of ridiculousness. His towering hydro-kalimba used an elevated row of cords to drip water at different rates onto "keys" cut into a miked cafeteria tray in a tub; a later version replaced the cords with pipes fitted with spigots, which allowed the water fed through each one to be turned on and off independently. His shortwave contraptions required even more work to install.
"The one thing that I remember most was that every place we played, Don Meckley would have to set up a 40-foot-long copper antenna, at least ten feet off of the ground, and preferably higher and outdoors," says Zerang. "It didn't matter if we were in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, or in downtown Manhattan, in a bar or in a basement, the antenna needed to go up. His entire invented instrument setup took hours to assemble and tune up, but the antenna was the first thing. This usually put him in many perilous situations, but he always managed to get a good signal for the shortwave radios."
After 15 years, the band felt they'd run their course creatively, but they played a final show in the theater of the Museum of Contemporary Art in March 1997, not long after the institution moved into its new building at 220 E. Chicago. Scanlan died in Florida in 2018, and Meckley ended a long performance hiatus by joining Zerang for a studio session in February 2020 (they plan to release the material in 2021).
Zerang has remained a prolific performer and recording artist, improvising with an ever-widening circle of international artists and maintaining long-term relationships with the likes of Hamid Drake, the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet (mothballed in 2012), the Friction Brothers (with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Colligan), and Karkhana, a seven-piece with some of the most innovative players from the Arab world. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.